Fear and Loathing Outside Las Vegas

Once upon a time, a group of nine twenty-somethings went to Las Vegas to celebrate a certain Editor-in-Chief’s 22nd birthday. This isn’t a tale of drunken debauchery and the shenanigans that follow — we all know that’s bound to happen when young adults are surrounded by free-flowing alcohol for days on end. Rather, this is a story of friendship, survival and scammers in the City of Sin.

Eli

“What is hair?” I energetically asked my car full of friends as I ran my fingers through my new short haircut, ready for an adventure.

It was time for a fresh new look. Jessica was turning 22, Taylor Swift was blasting through the speakers, and my other hand was on the steering wheel of my black Hyundai Elantra, taking us down the 15 toward Las Vegas for a birthday celebration we’d never forget.

It was still Saturday morning when we arrived and checked into the Riviera Hotel. We unloaded our belongings into two hotel rooms, changed for the remainder of the day, and strolled down the strip for an afternoon and evening of pleasure.

Between our arrival and Sunday afternoon, we sampled several Fat Tuesdays, explored the strip’s fancy hotels, danced the night away at a nightclub (women $0, men $30) and took photographs with The Riviera’s female stripper statues, our hands placed perfectly on each one of the twelve brass butt cheeks among them.

Then, it was time to leave.

On Sunday afternoon, I turned the key into the ignition of my car. It wouldn’t start. I tried a second time, a third time. No go. Finally, on the fourth try, the car started, but began rattling and violently shaking. Unsure of what else to do, I called AAA for a jumpstart.

30 minutes later, a man named Jacob arrived, wearing gold chains around his neck and arms, along with a shirt that said “ABC Auto Repair” on it. He looked under the hood, trying, we thought, to assess the problem with our vehicle.

“You need a new battery,” he said several minutes later. “Do you want one?”

“Okay.”

“$109.18,” he said promptly.

He put in the battery, I turned the key, and the car still would not start.

“Your car probably needs a new fuel pump, but all auto repair shops are closed today. We can tow your car to our shop and they’ll work on it tomorrow morning,” Jacob said.

The four of us who were still left in the group — Jessica, Katrina, Natalya and I — exchanged looks of despair and longed to be where our other five friends who had left hours earlier were — blissfully cruising down the freeway to the sounds of Childish Gambino and Korean pop stars. But alas, we were in a parking lot of the Riviera Hotel. There was nothing else to do but book another room for the night and hope for the best.

Soon, a creepy bearded gentleman arrived to tow my car.

“Do you know when my car will be fixed?” I asked.

“I have no idea, dude.”

Then he hooked my car to his truck, handed me a business card that read “ABC Auto Repair. Licensed and Insured,” and drove away.

Jessica

Stuck in Vegas for another night, we decided to make the best of it and pretend that nothing was wrong. We headed over to Serendipity 3, a festive, funky and colorful establishment known for its outrageous entrees and desserts.

We ordered some “Frrrozen Hot Chocolates” and prepared to feast.  Our waiter, who bore a slight resemblance to all the members of Led Zeppelin, seemed to walk to our table at the most untimely, frustratingly awkward, giggly moments.

An hour later, full from our oxymoronic sundaes and my triple-decker grilled cheese sandwich, we retreated back to the hotel and went to sleep.

Katrina

I awoke with a bag of potato chips clenched in my fist. Eli, I imagine, woke up for hourly phone checks into the morning; ABC Auto Repair was to phone him for car status. Jessica calmly lifted her way out of the hotel bed. Natalya, who couldn’t miss work, boarded a flight at 6:30 a.m. and was already home.  Jessica and I filled our bags with skimpy dresses and leftover Fat Tuesdays cups and left the hotel at 11 a.m.

We waltzed across the street to Circus Circus and settled in on two long, beige couches reserved for wedding chapel customers and families. Inspired by the wedding photos brightening the beige-striped wallpaper, Eli bent on one knee and asked for Jessica’s sweet hand in marriage. He then proposed to me, because I asked him to. While celebrating these happy moments, an employee came outside and asked us to leave. Apparently an actual wedding was about to take place.

We called a taxi, whose driver we helped to navigate to the repair shop. Our driver, admittedly endowed with good intuition, drove up to the repair shop and pitifully wished us off.

Jessica

We walked inside to find an old, dingy reception area. The paneling on the front counter fell off in deteriorating strips; electrical wires flooded out of a sketchy room in the back; a sign printed on 8 ½ by 11 printer paper and created in Microsoft Word read, “Please ring oor bell for Assitane.” I guess some of the letters had disappeared in the midst of all the car repairs.

But the couch — now that was my favorite. At first, I was comforted because it was reminiscent of the disgusting, yet beautiful, couch in our old newsroom in 3100 Gateway Commons. But this couch did not have that same charm. Without anywhere else to go, we took a seat on the peach and baby blue gingham couch and waited for the verdict.

 

Katrina

A woman waddled toward us. Debbie’s frumpy exterior opened me up, and my facial muscles relaxed. She kept her hair together with a thick Scrunchie and wrapped her flannel piece loosely around her waist. She led us into a conference room, where we all put on our investigative lenses. But the travel channel on the television took me to France. ‘It’s a deflective tactic,’ I thought, as I looked through the windows opposite the travel channel. We were in an archetypal industrial zone — complete with barbed wire and shrubbery. We were encased in a prison system.

 

Jessica

The most frustrating part of this entire experience was that we kept getting mixed answers as to what was exactly wrong with Eli’s car. We know nothing about cars, so we just blindly nodded along to everything and trusted that they would fix it. We suspected that these people were scamming us, as this fine institution was dubbed a “Scammer’s Paradise” on Yelp. Yet, there was nothing we could say to counter their diagnosis and we were stuck, so we continued to let them work.

First, the mechanic told us that we needed a crankshaft position sensor. Next, we needed a new ignition coil. Finally, toward the end of the day, they told us that Eli’s car had too much oil in the car and that his hood was spewing smoke. However, they said that they got the smoke to subside and that it was okay to drive. They told us that the car was not completely fixed, but that it would be good enough to get us home.

“Just don’t stop the car, and you should be fine,” the mechanic said. “Just leave it running when you get gas, change the spark plugs when you get home, and then everything will be fine.”

“Um… alright. So it’s safe to drive?” I asked with concern.

“Yeah, totally!”

Our favorite frumpy receptionist, Debbie, swiped Eli’s credit card and we all cringed at the huge dent in Eli’s bank account from this transaction. But, we needed these repairs to get us home. Or, so we thought.

We got in the car and it seemed to be running okay, but there was still a concerning noise in the hood. We ignored it and figured it would subside as we got further along in the trip.

We drove for close to two hours until we needed to get gas. We stopped at a travel center in Baker, California and left the car running, per the mechanic’s instructions.

10 minutes later, we got back in the car. The car wouldn’t accelerate past 10 miles per hour. Something in the hood rattled, signaling that the car was definitely not fixed.

“We have to get this towed,” I said in defeat. “There’s no way we’re going to get this home.”

We called AAA and discovered that my membership covered 100 miles of free towing. After that, it cost $8.00 per mile. We decided to tow it the 100 miles, which would take us as far as Victorville. We’d leave the car at a shop in Victorville, and then have a friend come pick us up and bring us back to Irvine.

AAA arrived and the driver loaded Eli’s car onto the truck. Katrina, Eli and I climbed into the truck and had a nice 100 mile ride with Jarrod, our lovely driver who listened to our tales of woe. We finally arrived in Victorville and dropped the car off at a shop. Shortly after, a friend of ours arrived and drove us to Irvine.

A little over an hour later, Katrina and I walked to our shared apartment in Camino del Sol and a wave of happiness rushed over us.

“Look at this beautifully manicured shrub!” she cried.

“Smell this clean, smoke-free air!” I responded.

We walked inside to greet our other roommate, Angelica, and her boyfriend, Alex — two of the lucky souls who had left in the early car. After an exchange of hugs and a recount of our adventure, we went upstairs and had the best sleep of our lives. We were home.

A week later, Eli picked up his car in Victorville and everything was thankfully fixed. There ended up being an ignition misfire, which meant that not enough gas could go into the engine to keep it running.

Despite the terrible scammers, the delayed trip and lost money, this adventure formed an unbreakable bond between us and gave us a name for a future band: The Ignition Misfires. I’ll play the clarinet, Eli will provide vocals, and Katrina will be on the bongos. We’ll sing songs of this misfortune for many years to come.

Moral of the story: Take your car into the shop for a check-up before you drive to Vegas. And never trust creepy bearded gentlemen with gold chains. Encounters with them rarely end well.